Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Judd Nelson is one of those actors who is so identified with a particular life-altering role—The Breakfast Club’s John Bender, the rebellious icon for ’80s teens and beyond—that you may be surprised to learn that he hasn’t stopped working since that movie. From a long-running sitcom stint to voice-over work to films like New Jack City, Airheads, and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, Nelson tells The A.V. Club that his motto is “work begets work.” His latest addition to his long IMDB list is the just-opened Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story, his first Western, with Trace Adkins. Judd Nelson was a Random Roles natural and gleefully dove into the backstories of some of his most famous roles—including of course, his most famous.
Fandango (1985)—“Phil Hicks”
The A.V. Club: Your first movie was Fandango with Kevin Costner.
Judd Nelson: Yep. And then Making The Grade.
AVC: For Fandango, did you have to audition? Was it an open call? How did that happen?
JN: I had to audition for it. When I read the script, the role that was interesting— so everyone thought—was the role that Costner played. He was the cool guy. And I read the script, and my representation at the time said, “That’s the role you should read for.” And I was like, “Really? How about I read for this other role.” And they went, “Well, you’re not going to get that role.” And so I go, “How about I get the role and then we don’t work together anymore?” And they laughed. And so I got the role and then we didn’t work together anymore.
Kind of silly. But that role seemed kind of interesting. Phil Hicks was the guy that was in the ROTC, that was going to go into the Vietnam War and thought that was the responsibility of the citizen. It was kind of fun to play. I didn’t know exactly what the heck I was doing. I was trained by Stella Adler for theater so you kind of give it all on every take. And Costner said, “You don’t have to do that… this is a wide shot, so you can calm down.”
AVC: Did you do stage work before in New York?
JN: Yeah. And that’s what I thought I was going to be doing, but they make it easier to make a living doing film and television.
AVC: But you had all this excellent training from Stella Adler, so you weren’t really intimidated being on a set?
JN: No, no, you just have to learn certain technical things, like where the camera is, not to block people’s light in your own, to hit your marks, and that you do it kind of piecemeal. It’s strange, ’cause a play, you start at the beginning and you go all the way through to the end. So it’s naturally very well rehearsed and you get a rhythm and a flow. In film, you can shoot the ending before the beginning. It’s very odd. And it’s like a craft you have to learn.
Breakfast Club was great because we had a real rehearsal, and we shot primarily in sequence. I thought that was going to be how movies were done. I didn’t really know how lucky we all were. We had a director that liked actors. I didn’t know that was going to be rare.
The Breakfast Club (1985)—“John Bender”
St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)—“Alec Newbary”
AVC: What was that rehearsal like? That movie is just one for the ages.
JN: [John] Hughes is a great loss, I think. He was the first filmmaker that could look at someone who was young without seeing them as being less. The only thing someone young is less [of] is less old, that’s it. And Hughes was well aware that to ignore the seriousness of young people is to encourage things like Columbine, so you might want to listen. And we were all pretty serious, a little bit, in high school. Some a little more than others. I think most of us aren’t really willing to remember it, you know? We kind of gloss it over. And Hughes really wanted it to sound authentic. He was a real collaborator. He encouraged us to bring to the material things we thought were maybe more truthful.
AVC: What’s something you brought to that material?
JN: Well, I remember Emilio [Estevez] and I were at John’s house during the rehearsal process. And John had mentioned he wrote the first draft of Breakfast Club in a weekend. And we both at the same time went, “First draft? How many do you have?” And John said he’s got four other drafts. And we go, “Can we read them?” And for the next three hours, Emilio and I read those other four drafts. And we asked if we could take some things that weren’t in the shooting draft, but from earlier drafts, “Can we maybe use this?” And Hughes was very amenable to all that. And there was some stuff that I liked, and I said, “How about this?” And he went, “Well, we’ll check with Molly [Ringwald]. Those scenes are with her. And if she likes it, fine.” So it was just wonderful. It was great.
As they were building that library in that school’s gym, they built a rehearsal space for us. It was really an empty room taped out with the same dimensions of the library. And they had the tables all there. And he had us sitting at the same table. All of us. And I was like, “I don’t want to sit with them.” And he was like, “What do you mean?” And I go, “I do not want to sit with them, you know?” And he goes, “Where do you want to sit?” And I knew from the script that I come in after [Anthony] Michael [Hall], so I go, “Wherever he sits, that’s the seat I want.” And he smiled and he looked at Michael, and he went, “Is that okay with you?” Michael went, “Fine.” And [Hughes] just went, “Okay.” And then Ally [Sheedy] said, “I don’t want to sit with them.” And he went, “Where do you want to sit?” And she goes, “Way in the back.” He says, “Fine.” And Emilio says, “Well, I’ll sit with Molly.” And we were like, “Yeah, of course you will.” And it had already begun. The rehearsal had already begun.
And Hughes was open to that. This can only happen if the director and/or the writer are open to that. They don’t have to agree. They can say, “Try it.” And then, “No.” Which is great. I worked with the late Leonard Frey. I did a play, and I would have these ideas and he would say, “I don’t know. Try it.” And I would try it and it would be awful, and he would go, “What do you think?” And I would go, “It was awful.” And he goes, “Okay, we’ll try something else.” And that’s great because it really makes you feel less working-for and more working-with. There’s nothing better than to feel a part of the team.
AVC: You and Emilio and Ally were a little bit older. Molly and Michael Hall were still teenagers, although that doesn’t come across in the movie at all. We all just pictured you all in the same detention room. But was there that kind of disconnect? You were already in your 20s. Was that a hard thing for you to tap back into?
JN: Yeah, I think I was, like, 23 or something. I was the oldest of the five. Emilio and Ally were a year younger. The only real difference was that Molly and Michael still had to go to school. They could shoot, like, a half day. So a lot of my close coverage was done with Molly’s stand-in, so Molly could do her schoolwork.
You know, we worked six days a week, so you have one day off. So on that Saturday night, it’s not like we could all go out and have a drink because Molly and Michael weren’t old enough. And Ally pretty much kept to herself. So Emilio and I, every Saturday night, would go into Chicago because we were shooting outside of Chicago in Des Plaines. It’s so funny, because even though we might be adversaries in the film, we certainly weren’t off-camera. He’s a very funny guy.
AVC: Do you remember where you went in Chicago?
JN: We tried the first evening to go down Division Street and Rush Street, but we couldn’t get in anywhere because they didn’t like his sneakers and they didn’t like my boots. This was 1983 or ’84, so it was ridiculous. We ended up at a jazz club, where you go downstairs and there’s a very cool place. And they stayed open late. They didn’t care what we wore. And we would go there every Saturday night.
AVC: So right after that, you and Emilio and Ally were reunited for St. Elmo’s Fire?
JN: Yeah, it was pretty soon after that. I know we didn’t do Breakfast Club knowing we were going to do that. It was an audition process after Breakfast Club, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do the movie. There was a bigger role that Rob [Lowe] was already set to play, so the role they wanted me to audition for was Alec. [Director] Joel Schumacher… this is back in the days when you could trick me with things like this. He goes, “Don’t you think you can play it?” And I go, “Okaaaaay.” So then I did it for all the wrong reasons but I don’t think I would fall for that again. Who knows. I might.
AVC: Especially coming from Bender, then playing Alec, the leader of this post-college crowd and the one who switches to being a conservative. St. Elmo’s Fire is another movie that just resonated with certain people, who were 22 and didn’t seem to know what they wanted either.
JN: Yeah, I don’t know if one’s more typecasting than the other, or what I am more like. But I know that the high school I went to was a private school. It was prep school. It was a boarding school. So we didn’t have a shop class. We didn’t have Saturday detention. We went to school on Saturday. We did have Sunday study, which you very rarely get, because then you have 13 straight days of school. Who wants that?
So there was no one really like John Bender at my high school. But it’s more like the inner workings of John Bender. He feels like he’s been given a short shrift, he’s not been provided the opportunities that maybe these other kids have. So he feels like he begins in a hole. And instead of trying to raise himself up, he wants to bring all of them down. That’s a dynamic that’s pretty universal. And so that was the real foothold on that. It wasn’t like, “Oh, my high school experience is like John Bender’s.”
Though Hughes did provide for us, if we wanted, to go to a local high school and try to blend in. Michael and Molly already had school to go to with their tutors. Ally wanted nothing to do with high school. She said, “I remember it fine. I don’t want to go back.” Which is great. So Emilio and I went. And Emilio lasted a couple hours because people recognized him from The Outsiders that had already been out, so his cover was blown.
Nobody knew me from Adam. The only one at the school who knew was the principal and his secretary. And the school we went to had a jock hall and a freak hall. So I just went to the freak hall with some dice and tried to take some money from some other students. The bell rang, and then everyone scattered. And the couple guys near me were like, “Get to class man, get to class,” and then they were gone. Within one minute, the whole hall was completely empty. And I hear these footsteps, big footsteps like a giant is walking towards me or something. And around the corner comes—they called him the vice principal but he was really security, I think—and he goes, “What are you doing?” And I go, “I’m just, uh, standing here.” And he goes, “Why aren’t you in class?” I go, “I don’t know where to go.” And he goes, “Come with me.” And he grabs me from the back of the neck and walks me back to the principal’s office, pushes me in there and goes, “I found this miscreant roaming the halls.”
And then he leaves. And it’s just me and the principal, who I saw 15 minutes earlier. And he just looks at me and smiles and goes, “I think I’m going to have a problem with you.” And I go, “Sir. I need a fake schedule so I’m not…” And he goes, “Oh yes, you do.” And I think he kind of set me up in a way. It was kind of funny. He knew what was going to happen. I didn’t. So then I would go there. We would rehearse, and then after rehearsal or before rehearsal, I would go to the high school. I met some kids. I’d smoke pot with them in the parking lot after school. It was great.
AVC: And that’s where John Bender came from?
JN: Yeah. I was older, but I told them I had a fake ID. So, they would have the pot, I would buy them beer. Hung out with them for a couple hours. It was fun. I enjoyed it.
You get the sense that Hughes is so right about the way groups divide and then divide again and then sometimes align and then sometimes break apart. And this idea that Michael Hall’s character says, “On Monday, are we going to be friends?” you know, based on this. And it was like, “No.” And he was like, “That just sucks. Because I would not do that to you.” And then I think Molly says something like, “It’s ’cause you look up to us,” or something. But it’s fascinating that you can see that very clearly, especially when a school has—not official names, but clearly everyone knew what was jock hall and what was freak hall. I was like, “Holy crap. There it is.”
AVC: And then you had your character.
JN: If you read a script enough, especially a good script—I try to read it 40 to 50 times before you begin so you get a sense of the arc: what happens before, what happens after, what happens during. In a good script, it’s really like a treasure map. You just focus on that, all the answers are pretty much in it.
AVC: The arm raise at the end, that was you too, right? That was your contribution?
JN: I think so, yeah. There were a few things that, in rehearsal, any one of us might try. Hughes would go, “I like that,” to me spitting up in the air and catching it in my mouth. It was just something I did in a rehearsal and Molly went, “Ewww.” And John went, “Can you do that again?” And I went all day long, and he was like, “Okay, let’s do that.” And you know who was wonderful to work with? Was Paul Gleason, may he rest in peace.
He played the teacher. I just tortured him as best I could. ’Cause he wasn’t one of the kids, you know, so it was okay. He was great. Did you ever see Trading Places? Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. He played Clarence Beeks, which I thought was so great when he was on the phone and some old lady wants to use the phone, and he goes, “Fuck off!” or something like that, which is great. [Laughs.] But he was a great guy, Paul. I loved working with him.
From The Hip (1987)—“Robin ‘Stormy’ Weathers”
AVC: One of your first leads was only a few years after that. You were the lawyer in From The Hip, with an early David Kelley script. What was that like? You’re basically a hothead lawyer and you’re carrying this whole movie against some pretty impressive actors.
JN: My dad’s a lawyer. No shit. My dad’s a lawyer, so I’m not a lawyer but I can play one. “I’m not an actor, but I play one on TV.” I enjoyed doing it as an ode to my dad. My dad went to Harvard and Harvard Law School, so he had some friends that practiced in Boston. So, there was a big law firm that he hooked me up with the senior partner, then the senior partner hooked me up with a young lawyer who worked in the firm. And the young lawyer was married to a public defender. So I would hang out with them, and I could see both sides of it, those that are corporate attorneys and those that help the poor and the disenfranchised. And I would go to trials a lot in Boston, as best I could. And it’s incredible that, like, lawyers that had a good case weren’t dramatic at all. Lawyers that had a horrible case would sing and dance and do whatever it took to convince the jury or the judge that this guy was innocent. So that was a cool thing to see because that made me believe that what the script was doing was totally believable. Now, maybe not ordinary. But it could happen.
AVC: That one holds up pretty well, too.
JN: I have not seen that in a zillion years. John Hurt was incredible to work with.
AVC: Yeah, when you’re yelling at him and he’s on the stand, and you make him crack. So good.
JN: It’s like they talk about how American actors have the method and English actors just kind of switch views faster. Whatever, from the outside-in or the inside-out… and I’ll tell you. John would be telling me a story—I think he was telling me a story about Alec Guinness and how he liked to play chess on the set when he wasn’t working so he could keep his mind sharp and it wouldn’t make him tired. And John is telling me the story as he’s sitting in that witness chair, and they’re putting the final touches of makeup on. And he goes, “Hold on a second,” to stop his story so he can do the take. And I go, “Okay.” And it’s his close coverage of going crazy. And he does this incredible take. They go, “Cut.” And then immediately John goes, “Anyways, so Alec, he’s playing the chess.” And I’m just going, “Holy crap.” You get whiplash from those kinds of quick turns! He’s just really gifted, and I had a great time working with him and [am] very lucky to have worked with him.
I went and saw him here in L.A. Two years ago, he did a one-man Beckett show of Krapp’s Last Tape. I went back and saw him afterwards, and what an actor he is. He is so gifted. At the beginning of the play, he’s quiet, looking out at us. We’re not sure if there’s a fourth wall or not. He hasn’t uttered a word yet. And for almost five minutes, he’s totally silent. I’m not sure what’s going on. You have to be so confident and so gifted to fill five minutes of nothing at the very beginning of a play before even a word is uttered. Like, holy moly.
AVC: A chart recently showed he was the person who has died the most on screen in a variety of different ways. He’s just been in so many things and always has these really dramatic exits.
JN: Really? I didn’t even realize that. So he’s died a lot in movies?
AVC: Seriously, if you Google most screen deaths, it’s him and Sean Bean. Sean Bean gets impaled in medieval movies and he gets shot a lot, but John Hurt has movies like Alien, so…
JN: Oh wow, Alien’s a great one. That’s a scary movie, man.
New Jack City (1991)—“Nick Peretti”
AVC: In the ’90s, you had such an interesting mix of projects. You’re in New Jack City, which must have been intense.
JN: Yeah, that was really fun. I went to acting school with Mario Van Peebles. For a little while, he was at the same school. So he asked me if I wanted to do it. He said, “There’s not really a role. We’ll figure something out. But would you like to?” And I was like, “Sure.” ’Cause he said it was Chris Rock and Ice T’s first movie. And Chris Rock was great. And is such a talented guy. But that was fun to do.
I was living in New York, so I just rode my motorcycle up to the set. So first day of work for me was kind of tough. I roll up to this housing complex where they’re shooting, and I ride my motorcycle up on the sidewalk. And I get ready to get off my bike, and I’m surrounded by the security guards, who were Louis Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam guys. Who had the double-breasted suits and guns. And this guy goes, “Where you goin’?” And I said, “I’m here to work.” And they said, “No you’re not.” And I said, “Yeah. I’m here to work on the movie.” And they said, “No you’re not. Get on your bike.” And I’m like, “What?” And then a second guy’s there and says, “Get on your bike, and get out of here now. You’re not welcome.” So I have to right away find a payphone and call the production office and go, “Hey, I’m not late. I’m here. They won’t let me on the set. Can you let them know there’s a white guy here that’s gonna work?” Very weird. But shit happens.
Airheads (1994)—“Jimmie Wing”
AVC: What about Airheads? You were kind of a villain in that, right?
JN: Yeah, the record-company guy. I think that thing delivered with the naked pictures of Bea Arthur, though. Which is a scary sign.
AVC: You just can’t get any more ’90s than that movie, I don’t think.
JN: Yeah. It was fun to work on. Adam Sandler is a really funny guy in real life. Separate from all of the movies, that is a funny man.
AVC: He wasn’t really big yet then.
JN: He was blossoming at that point.
AVC: Soon after that, you took your first TV series with Suddenly Susan.
JN: Yeah, I did a Moonlighting episode because I was friends with Whoopi [Goldberg, who guest-starred in the same episode], and she asked me to do it and I did it. But yeah, that was my first regular on a series, and it’s because I’d met Brooke Shields a number of years earlier at a charity event. And I still think she’s aces. She’s really smart, interesting, doesn’t feel that her time is more valuable than anyone else’s. Really hardworking. And I knew that if she was the star of the show, it’s going to be a good experience. And it was.
AVC: Was it hard for you to get into that structure? You were on it for 71 episodes, so that’s a lot more regular time than you’d been spending elsewhere.
JN: Part of the reason I thought that I might do a series is, my dad has pretty much been on the same road to work for years and years. And it’s like, “Could I do something like that? Am I so independent that I can’t punch the clock at the same place?” So part of it was a kind of exercise. “Can I be responsible in this way?” And lo and behold, I could. Luckily. It’d be bad if I couldn’t.
The Transformers: The Movie (1986)—“Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime”
Ben 10: Omniverse (2013-14)—“Eon/Ben 10,000/Atomix X”
AVC: You’ve also done a lot of interesting animation work. Did you get approached to do that?
JN: The first animation thing I did was the first Transformers, the one that was animated many years ago. And I had heard that Orson Welles was doing a voice on it.
AVC: Oh, yeah. That was one of his last credits.
JN: And I wanted to meet Orson Welles. So I was like, whatever, somehow get me in on this. I’m able to get cast in it, but Orson Welles worked alone. He worked before all of us worked. He didn’t want to work with anyone else. So I was like, crushed. I was like, “Ahhhhh!” So I asked the director what he was like. And the director said that Orson came in and said, “Okay. I’ll give you three line readings of every line. Don’t direct me. We’ll just go one, then two, then three.” And I go, “Okay, but how was he?” And the director says, “He was great.” Of course. So I was bummed, but…
And then I got offered to do Ben 10. Sue Blu was the [voice] director of that, and I had worked with her—I think she was on Transformers as well. And she was so great. Voice-over stuff is so much fun because you don’t have hair and makeup and wardrobe. You get to show up. And there were some talented people, and we don’t even know them. And they’re so gifted. They can do all these accents and voices. It’s really fun to do that stuff. It’s really like actor camp.
Empire (2015)—“Billy Beretti”
AVC: You’ve come back to Chicago recently a few times for Empire. It’s amazing how they set up that club on the Cinespace campus down there.
JN: I was just in a few episodes the first season. They didn’t kill me, but I haven’t been back in season two or three. I don’t know if they have plans for me or not. But I enjoyed working on it. And I think it’s a really talented group of actors and, boy, very enterprising to try and shoot those every week, you know, with musical numbers and all that stuff. It was a blast, and I like Chicago. It’s a great city. It’s always fun to revisit it.
JN: Stagecoach is really my first Western, actually. Because Fandango is not really a Western. It’s really just set in Texas. It’s a road picture. And then I did one that hasn’t come out yet called Kreep, which is set in Texas, but it’s not really a Western. But it has a more rural-Texas feel to it. So Stagecoach is really my first Western-Western, the whole horses and gunplay. It was really fun. We shot it fast, too. We got lucky with the weather. If it rained, I don’t know if we would have been able to finish it. We had like 12 shooting days for the whole thing.
AVC: Was it a fast-bonding thing with all the other guys? The sitting around the campfire and drinking out of the bottle, all the guns?
JN: Yeah, everyone is great. Trace Adkins is such a great guy. Really is. And he’s got that incredible voice—low, deep. He throws words around like “my dental coverage.” You know what I mean? He doesn’t talk too much, but when he does he’s got great stories. He’s lived a great life. And you know, Kim Coates is really funny. He’s a blast. If you have to get beaten up and tortured, he’s a good guy to get tortured by.
The Dark Backward (1991)—“Marty Malt”
Relentless (1989)—“Arthur ‘Buck’ Taylor”
Cabin By The Lake (2000)/Return To Cabin By The Lake (2001)—“Stanley Caldwell”
Santa Jr. (2002)—“Darryl Bedford”
Cancel Christmas (2010)—“Santa Claus/Kris Frost”
AVC: Well, that’s a good thing to say about somebody. Is there a project that you’ve worked on that you love that you feel didn’t really get the attention that you thought it deserved?
JN: The Dark Backward. Bill Paxton is in it with me. Wayne Newton. James Caan. Adam Rifkin wrote and directed it. It was made a number of years ago and very odd. Not for the squeamish.
AVC: Is that the one where you’re a serial killer?
JN: No, I play a garbage man who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. Terrible. But he gets a bump on his back that slowly becomes a third arm. And that makes him funny, a little bit. But I think it’s a great movie.
AVC: Wow, The Dark Backward. What’s the serial killer one I’m thinking of?
JN: Relentless. Also someone who has writer’s block and kills people in A Cabin By The Lake. I guess he’s a type of serial killer, but I don’t know.
AVC: It’s interesting. Most people, if they’re doing sinister roles, they’re primarily doing sinister. But you’re really varied and have these roles that are all over the place.
JN: Oh, thank you, it’s fun. I got to play Santa, too. It’s really important to play Santa, you know.
AVC: Santa Jr.?
JN: I wasn’t Santa in Santa Jr., but I was Santa in Cancel Christmas.
AVC: Like, officially Santa?
JN: Santa Jr. I was a cop. Yes, I was officially Santa. But a younger Santa. He goes young, clean-shaven, to how we imagine Santa with all the white hair and beard and “Ho ho ho.” Kind of funny.
AVC: Some of these aren’t the best-known movies, but you have never stopped working in all this time. You go from project to project.
JN: I think that sometimes you don’t have the opportunities for some of the most A-list-type movies, big-budget movies. But I think it’s important to keep working and make the best of what’s available. Because otherwise, what? Are you just going to get bitter and moan? What does my mom always say? “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
It’s a profession where merit is not necessarily rewarded. You can do crap work in a big movie, and it does good things. You can do great work in a movie no one sees, it does nothing. That’s the way it goes. You have to kind of roll with the punches. That’s why I think work begets work to a certain degree. I just try and keep busy.